The sun had hit the Western sky and illuminated the black pillars of smoke coming from beyond the big hill. It billowed forward, and hung around my neighborhood in a dark haze. It was twilight that had come hours early; no one expected it, but everyone knew it was eventually going to come. I sat on the front porch, cigarette in my left hand, bottle of beer in my right. The odor had started earlier, and was almost pleasant, like a backyard barbecue. My neighbor leaned over his fence and had asked if someone was cooking; I gave him a knowing smile and pointed over the hill. We both knew what it was, but we didn't want to say it out loud. The old man was burning the carcasses of his cows. All of them.
I knew why, of course. It was the only reason one person would kill his entire herd of cows. When the news first broke, the clamor around town was outstanding. It seemed like every farmhand was talking about it, at the gas station and the bars. I'd hear the old men croaking at the bars about it, and the young men who never escaped their parents' farm laughing about it while waiting for their truck's gas tank to fill. Other farmers who had bought animals from the old man questioned the spread of disease across their own herds, fearing the loss of their way of life, their income, and their families. Panicked minds prevailed, and the offending animals were shot and sent to the Department of Agriculture for analysis and testing. No one wanted to share the fate of the Old Man. No one wanted to kill their animals, and send black smoke into the air. No one wanted to court Mad Cow Disease.
The old man was no one's favorite; he was bitter, and resentful to everyone, but especially children. As a teenager, my friends and I would spend time hiding out in his fields, giving the slip to our parents and the small town cops we grew to resent. He started shooting at us with bb guns and chased us out. When we didn't take the hint, he came back with a .22. Bobby Flanagan's ear never grew back, and his parents put him in private school. No one liked the old man.
It was no secret that no one liked him, but it was also no secret that he mistreated his animals. Stories spread fast in a small town, and everyone knew what he did. But no one saw mad cow disease. It ripped through his herd like a wildfire, and before anyone could react, the cows were all "culled." I talked to a government man while I was down at the liquor store; he told me that it was likely that the old man's cows were infected well before this happened. He said that he suspected they'd be back, checking other farmers' herds for signs of it. He called it Bovine spongiform encephalopathy. I told him that name made it sound less serious when no one knew what it meant. He laughed, and walked out. I liked him; with one short conversation he managed to change the monotony for a little while.
With the pillars of smoke still burning, I decided to walk over the hill and see for myself what was going on. As I reached the peak, I looked into a war zone. Across the field were piles of charred corpses, revealing blackened bone and congealed fat oozing across the grass. I vomited. Twice. But at least it broke the monotony for a while. Especially when the vision of a small calf being thrown onto a bonfire became a reoccurring dream.
It was the last refuge of the damned, of sorts. The little culdesac at the bottom of the subdivision was the last stop for a school bus, and the last bit of land that was developed already, not waiting for clearance by the town board or the chamber of commerce. Every house looked so similar, you had to do a double-take to ensure you didn't just see the same house painted a different color. Even the plants in front seemed like they were clones of one another: perennials placed perfectly on the contours and corners of each house, almost in the same place. Only the colors chosen were different. It was that place you lived where everyone knew you were an outsider in the town for sure. Not born and bred. Not one of the homesteaders who spent their time working, living, and dying here. The ones who first cultivated this section of the county and dammed the river. We were reason they had to build up the schools, one of those damn people building up what used to be a quaint little farming town. A place bypassed by time. The only thing that didn't make it worse was that we weren't those damn blacks living in those cheap apartments.
When the bus came to drop the children off after school, the smoke had dissipated through the air and the smell of the fires had died down. Concerned parents were waiting to snap up the precious cargo and whisk them away inside the eerily similar houses. As they became curious, the unattended children starting looking towards the hill, and slowly began climbing it to see what was happening. The housewife across the culdesac chased them away, wielding a hose against an unlucky ten-year-old. He unhappily walked down the street, his friends laughing at him the whole way, cardinal hat bobbing through the lawns of the neighbors. They dispersed among the subdivision, oblivious of what was happening just beyond the hill.
That was more the point than anything else really. The point that the little town had grown a little too big for the homesteaders, and now it was a bedroom community for a bunch of yuppies looking for a safe place to raise their children. A refuge from the outside world with its drugs and its guns and all its problems. Those kids eventually grow up and move on, and find themselves ill prepared for the world around them, too protected in this ivory tower. Then they come home, do nothing with their lives, and watch as the Old Man burns his entire herd of cattle while the world turns around the town. Me. My friends. This whole goddamn place. Removed from the outside world. Quarantined. Waiting to be purified and released, so that our lives can finally start.